Justice Blogs

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Courtesy of Acting Associate Attorney General Stuart F. Delery

As we pause to remember our fallen heroes this Memorial Day weekend, we remember also that the First Americans – Native Americans – have answered the call to service throughout our nation’s history, and have fallen on battlefields around the world.  Sadly, that proud tradition of service has not always been answered with  the blessings of citizenship, including access to voting polls.                

Last week the Department of Justice proposed legislation that would require states or localities whose territory includes part or all of an Indian reservation, an Alaska Native village, or other tribal lands to locate at least one polling place in a venue selected by the tribal government.   It would require states to make voting machines, ballots, and other voting materials and equipment available at tribal polling places to the same extent that they are available at other polling places in the state.  By these and other measures, put simply, it would guarantee the same level of access to voting First Americans as most voting Americans enjoy today. 

The causes for this gap in voter participation rates are complex and have been long in the making.  American Indians and Alaska Native people have faced a history of discrimination affecting their right to vote and were not conferred citizenship until 1924.  Even after this, many states continued to disenfranchise Indians by refusing to treat them as state residents and by imposing literacy tests.  As recently as 1948, Indians, including veterans like the Navajo Code Talkers who recently had returned from the battlefields of World War II, were barred from voting in Arizona and New Mexico. 

In 1975, recognizing the barriers to full participation that Native Americans continued to confront, Congress expressly included American Indians and Alaska Natives as protected groups under the special provisions of the Voting Rights Act.  Sections 4 and 5 of the Voting Rights Act prohibited many jurisdictions with large American Indian or Alaska Native populations from changing their voting laws until they could prove that the change would not create new barriers to participation.  A number of jurisdictions with large Native American populations that have limited English proficiency — in six states, including Alaska — are also covered by Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires bilingual election materials and assistance.

Despite these reforms, participation rates among American Indians and Alaska Natives continue to lag behind turnout rates among non-Native voters.   Estimates suggest that nationwide, while nearly 64 percent of non-Native adult citizens cast a ballot in the 2008 presidential election, less than 48 percent of Native American adult citizens voted. Part of that gap is attributable to differences in registration rates; but even among registered voters, the turnout among American Indians and Alaska Natives nationwide falls 5 to 14 percentage points below that of other racial and ethnic groups. And the gap with respect to Alaska Natives is especially large: Turnout among Alaska Natives often falls 15 to 20 or more percentage points below the non-Native turnout rate. 

There are many examples of the problems American Indian and Alaska Native voters have faced getting to the polls. Residents of the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation in South Dakota had to travel up to 150 miles roundtrip to vote until a federal court ordered the establishment of polling places on the reservation.  And in Alaska, polling places to which Alaska Natives have been assigned are sometimes located across a river or other body of water or across a mountain range that is impassable on Election Day. The Alaska Division of Elections has assigned some Native villages to polling places that are 75 miles away and accessible only by air or boat.  

For some potential voters, the inaccessibility of polling places poses only a minor barrier, since they can instead vote absentee. But that option is far less manageable for American Indian or Alaska Native voters with limited English proficiency, because they receive little or no assistance in navigating the bureaucratic process for obtaining and casting an absentee ballot. In Alaska, for example, the state has designated dozens of Yup’ik-speaking Native villages as “permanent absentee voting” sites where voters must fill out an English-language application to vote absentee in each election. 

Currently, federal law does not specifically address the location of polling places, leaving the decision essentially in the hands of each state which in turn often give that responsibility to local jurisdictions.   

Given the continued difficulties faced by American Indian and Alaska Native voters, this legislation is long overdue and needed if we are to adequately safeguard Native Americans’ voting rights.  As citizens of a nation founded upon the principles of liberty and equality, Native Americans have faced unacceptable barriers to participating in the franchise, a situation aggravated by a history of discrimination, poverty and — significantly — great distances from polling places.   The legislation proposed today would address this unacceptable gap and we look forward to working with Congress to see it enacted.  

Friday, May 22, 2015

Courtesy of Acting Associate Attorney General Stuart F. Delery

On Memorial Day, we remember the men and women of the United States Armed Forces who gave their lives to protect the freedoms we cherish.  We mourn with the families and friends of those we have lost, hoping they find comfort in knowing their loved ones died with honor.

I find it useful and inspirational to reflect on the origin of the holiday we call Memorial Day, because its lessons of compassion and recovery resonate today. It began just after the Civil War, as Decoration Day, a time for the survivors of that terrible and tragic conflict to decorate the graves of the fallen which lay throughout the towns and counties of America -- especially in the South.

One of the first springtime tributes to the Civil War dead occurred in Columbus, Mississippi, on April 25, 1866.  A group of women visited a cemetery to decorate the graves of Confederate soldiers who had fallen in battle at Shiloh. Nearby were the graves of Union soldiers, neglected because they had been the enemy and their loved ones were far away. Disturbed at the sight of the bare graves, the women placed some of their flowers on those graves as well.  This gesture of unity, one borne of a generosity of spirit, was part of the process of healing our Nation as Americans began to formalize the ways they honored those who had made the ultimate sacrifice.

The first large national observance of Decoration Day was held two years later at Arlington National Cemetery. Speaking at the ceremony, President James Garfield recognized the sacrifices of the soldiers buried there, saying that “for love of country” they had “made immortal their patriotism and their virtue.”  Today, 150 years after the end of the Civil War, Americans from all backgrounds, races, and ethnicities, and from all regions of our country, serve with valor, courage, and distinction as one people, united, in the Armed Forces of the United States. 

This Memorial Day, let us renew our commitment to preserving the legacy of our brave citizens by continuing to work for peace, freedom, and security.  And although we can never hope to repay the debt of gratitude our nation owes those who have served in the Armed Forces, we must never forget to acknowledge what we owe them.  As Abraham Lincoln said in his second inaugural address, it is our duty “to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” 

Indeed, perhaps the best way we can honor the fallen is by supporting their families and by supporting servicemembers and veterans still with us today.  Through the Department of Justice’s Servicemembers and Veterans Initiative, we hope to help address the unique challenges that servicemembers face while on active duty, that veterans face upon returning home, and that families face when a loved one is deployed.  That includes prioritizing enforcing the statutes specifically created to protect the civilian employment rights, voting rights, and financial security of those serving in the Armed Forces, and supporting programs, including Veterans Treatment Courts, that assist the more than 22 million veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, or other mental health problems connected to their experiences while serving.  Let us carry on the legacy of those who sacrificed their lives for our country by allowing servicemembers to focus on their work protecting the country and helping veterans take their rightful place in the country they have sacrificed so much to protect and defend. 

Friday, May 22, 2015

Courtesy of Vanita Gupta, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division

This Sunday marked the anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court case establishing that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”  Some sixty one years after Brown, the Department of Justice still works to uphold the promise of equal educational opportunities, including through its remaining desegregation cases.  Although these cases originated decades ago, the educational opportunities at stake are no less important today than at the time of Brown.   

This April, U.S. District Judge Madeleine Hughes Haikala of the Northern District of Alabama approved a consent order in the longstanding desegregation case Hereford v. Huntsville Board of Education.  The order, referred to by the court as a “game changer” in the district’s path toward fully eliminating the effects of segregation, came after an extensive inquiry by the Department of Justice and months of conversations with the school district.  It includes many key reforms.  It will require the district to provide equal educational opportunities to African-American students by:

  • revising attendance zones and growing and strengthening magnet programs to improve diversity at many of its schools;
  • expanding access for African-American students to pre-kindergarten, gifted programs, advanced course offerings such as Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate, academic after-school programs, and college counseling;
  • implementing measures to promote faculty and administrator diversity;
  • ensuring that all students are aware of and can equally participate in extracurricular activities;
  • creating positive, inclusive school climates, and ensuring that student discipline is fair, non-discriminatory and does not unnecessarily remove students from classrooms;
  • establishing a desegregation advisory committee of students and parents to advise the district and inform the court about implementation of the consent order;
  • providing professional development for teachers on such topics as strategies for teaching students from diverse backgrounds, understanding implicit bias and supporting positive student behavior; and
  • continuously monitoring racial disparities to ensure meaningful and sustained improvement in student performance, students’ access to courses and rates of student discipline and other areas. 

There is no doubt that with full and faithful implementation, the consent order will provide many tangible benefits to African American students and to the entire school district.  Judge Haikala’s opinion also made clear the important intangible benefits conveyed through the school district’s commitment.  Judge Haikala’s opinion spoke directly to the students saying, “The consent order begins and ends with the district’s students – all of its students…The district believes in you and in your potential for success.  We all do…. Think about how much the city of Huntsville will benefit from the contributions that you will make in the years ahead as teachers and engineers, as doctors and lawyers, as artists and musicians.  You are an integral part of your community and have so much to offer.” 

In Brown, the Supreme Court famously described the impact of racial discrimination on young students, noting the “feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.”  As we reflect on the legacy of Brown and the work still to be done, it is worth keeping in mind not only the damaging message sent by a discriminatory education system, but also the positive message conveyed when people do come together to ensure that all children have equal access to quality education.  

 

Topic(s):
Civil Rights (including EEOC)
Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Courtesy of Karen Lash, Access to Justice Initiative Deputy Director, U.S. Department of Justice

Today, the U.S. Department of Justice National Institute of Justice (NIJ) and Access to Justice Initiative (ATJ), in collaboration with the National Science Foundation’s Law and Social Sciences Program (NSF LSS), are hosting a Civil Legal Aid Research Workshop in Washington, D.C. This invitation-only workshop will bring researchers and practitioners together to further explore the existing and needed research around civil legal aid and its intersection with public safety and criminal justice. 

These workshops are important because research matters.  But since the early 1980s basic research into access to civil justice has fragmented into a number of highly specialized literatures across law and social science disciplines.  A consequence of that fragmentation is that little high quality, publicly available data exists today to guide policy and programmatic decisions. 

That’s why ATJ staff participates in a range of practitioner and academic meetings like the ones happening today, to fill the research gap.  As Stanford Law Professor Deborah Rhode wrote in the Journal of Legal Education, “The [ATJ] office’s interest in building bridges to legal academics prompted a meeting at Stanford University in 2011 under the sponsorship of the Stanford Center on the Legal Profession, the American Bar Foundation and the Harvard Program on the Legal Profession.  One result of that meeting was the creation of a Consortium on Access to Justice.  The mission of the consortium is to promote research and teaching on access to justice.” 

Building on the Stanford convening, ATJ then hosted a series of meetings that led to a National Science Foundation (NSF) workshop led by principal investigator and American Bar Foundation (ABF) Fellow Rebecca Sandefur.  The December 7-8, 2012 ABF workshop, entitled Access to Civil Justice: Re-Envisioning and Reinvigorating Research, was designed to identify key unanswered questions in access to justice central to both scholarship and practice, to open a conversation about partnerships on specific research projects and to launch a durable, national Access to Justice research program.  The workshop, coupled with inspiration from NSF’s March 13, 2013 Dear Colleague Letter - Stimulating Research Related to the Use and Functioning of the Civil Justice System, contributed to the successful applications of four joint practitioner/researcher NSF applications on a range of topics such as studying outcomes from self-help strategies and representation in housing and small claims courts.   

More recently, the March 27, 2015, remarks below by Karen Lash, Deputy Director, at the University of South Carolina School of Law Data2J Research Roundtable on Access to Justice, outlines the imperative to develop a robust body of literature in light of the Obama Administration’s evidence-based agenda that requires data to preserve, expand or propose new federal programs. 

All of this combined explains why this administration—and the Justice Department in particular—seeks new funds in the 2016 budget request for nearly $3 million to build the department’s capacity for research and data collection related to civil legal aid.    

During today’s event, a multi-disciplinary workshop will include domestic and international experts, including civil legal aid experts, researchers, government officials - including representatives of the Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable-, and private funders.  A discussion of the ongoing United Nations activity to establish the post-2015 sustainable development goals and likely inclusion of access to justice in that framework will be included. ATJ will generate a report summarizing the presentations and discussions, including the participants’ recommendations on a research agenda and federal priorities to advance this work.  The outcome report will be similar to a 2011 report that ATJ issued following a workshop on indigent defense research available here.  That report helped inform federal research priorities and activities on indigent defense.  We expect this civil legal aid counterpart to do the same.

For an overview of the current need for expanding available literature on civil legal aid and what works, see keynote remarks delivered last month by Karen Lash, ATJ Deputy Director, at the University of South Carolina School of Law, DATA2J Research Roundtable on Access to Justice, on March 26, 2015.

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Friday, May 15, 2015

President Obama and Attorney General Lynch attend the National Peace Officers Memorial ServiceAttorney General Lynch and President Obama attended the National Peace Officers Memorial Service today at the U.S. Capitol, an annual ceremony honoring law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty. 

In his remarks, President Obama honored the 131 peace officers who made the ultimate sacrifice, and praised the bravery of our nation’s law enforcement:

It takes a special kind of courage to be a peace officer.  To be the one people turn to in their most desperate moments.  To be willing to run into a dangerous situation, when everyone else is running the other way.  Scripture tells us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves -- but only a special few take that commandment so deeply to heart that they are willing to risk their lives so that others -- often total strangers -- can know peace and security.  And that’s what peace officers do. 

On Wednesday night’s Annual Candlelight Vigil, Attorney General Lynch paid tribute to the law enforcement officers who had fallen:

Today, we celebrate and remember all that they were, all that they did and all that they stood for during the precious years we were privileged to have their service, their protection, their friendship and their love.  Today, we share stories of their valor, their idealism, their humor and their grace.  Today, we recommit ourselves to the high standard that they set for all of us – in the service of our country, and in support of our fellow Americans.  We are all heirs to their weighty legacy and we must be champions of those they sought to protect.

Attorney General Lynch and FBI Director James Comey at the Candlelight VigilEstablished in 1962, Police Week recognizes the service and sacrifice of U.S. law enforcement and honors law enforcement officers who have lost their lives in the line of duty.

Attorney General Lynch also attended memorials at the Federal Bureau of Investigation; Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives; Drug Enforcement Administration; and Bureau of Prisons. 

 

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Courtesy of Vanita Gupta, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division

Americans with disabilities can face many unnecessary barriers to employment, both during the job application process and on the job.  These barriers can prevent people with disabilities from finding and maintaining a job, receiving promotions and ultimately being economically self-sufficient and independent. 

During the job application process, applicants with disabilities may not want to disclose their disabilities to potential employers for a number of reasons, including the risk that the employer would refuse to hire them because of their disability.  Sometimes employers stereotype people with disabilities or take adverse employment actions because of misinformation or ignorance about certain health conditions.  Having to disclose a disability can deter people with disabilities even from applying for jobs out of fear of discrimination. 

Recognizing these real risks, Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) makes it unlawful for an employer to ask about whether an applicant has with a disability or about the nature of such disability before making a conditional offer of employment.  Under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, however, federal contractors subject to affirmative action requirements must invite an applicant voluntarily to self-identify as an individual with a disability, consistent with certain requirements.  

Despite the ADA’s prohibitions, some employers still ask job applicants if they have a disability and about the nature of the disability, in violation of the ADA.  Over the past few months, the Department of Justice found that several public employers were making these kinds of inquiries right in their job applications.  To resolve these violations, the department entered into settlement agreements with nine different public entities.  These jurisdictions include the entities Parowan, Utah; Española, New Mexico; DeKalb, Illinois; Vero Beach, Florida; Fallon, Nevada; Isle of Palms, South Carolina; Hubbard, Oregon; Village of Ruidoso, New Mexico; and Florida State University. 

These settlement agreements require the entities to remove the unlawful questions from the applications and follow all requirements of the ADA with respect to job applicants and employees.  Further, to help prevent future violations, the settlement agreements require that the employees who make hiring and personnel decisions be properly trained on the requirements of the ADA.  In addition, the entities must designate an individual to address ADA compliance and report on compliance to the United States.   

Today, many job applications are completed online.  Another barrier to employment faced by some people with disabilities, such as those who are blind or have low vision, are deaf or hard of hearing, or have physical disabilities affecting manual dexterity (such as limited ability to use a mouse), is that online job applications are not fully accessible to them.  Individuals with these disabilities use assistive technology, such as screen reading software and captions, to access online information.  But websites need to be designed to work with these technologies.  Without the ability to access a job application, people with disabilities will not even have the opportunity to apply for a job in the first place.  Several investigations conducted by the department found that the public entity’s online employment opportunities website or job applications were not fully accessible to people with disabilities.  To resolve these violations, the entities must ensure that their online employment opportunities website and job applications comply with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0, which are industry guidelines for making web content accessible.

Ensuring that job applications are free from unlawful questions and accessible to all applicants is essential to enable people with disabilities to find work and advance in their jobs.  With equal access to employment, hardworking Americans with disabilities can contribute as valued members of the workforce, and both justice and economic advancement are served. 

For more information on the department’s ADA Title I employment discrimination settlement agreements and consent decrees, visit www.ada.gov.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Courtesy of Assistant Attorney General Karol V. Mason of the Office of Justice Programs

The responsibility for building and maintaining civic trust rests with every sector of society, from criminal and juvenile justice agencies to our human services system, and from faith-based groups to families.  In its report to the president, the Task Force on 21st Century Policing said that technologies like body-worn cameras “can improve policing practices and build community trust and legitimacy,” and recommended several actions aimed at ensuring their effective and transparent use.

Today, Attorney General Lynch announced a $20 million Body-Worn Camera (BWC) Pilot Partnership Program to respond to the immediate needs of local and tribal law enforcement organizations.  The investment includes $17 million in competitive grants for the purchase of body-worn cameras, $2 million for training and technical assistance and $1 million for the development of evaluation tools to study best practices.  Our Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) expects to make up to 50 awards to law enforcement agencies, with about one-third of the grants directed toward smaller agencies.  The grants, which require a 50/50 in-kind or cash match, can be used to purchase equipment so long as applicants establish a strong plan for implementation and a robust training policy before purchasing the cameras.  The long-terms costs associated with storing information will be the financial responsibility of each local agency.

BJA also will launch a BWC Implementation Toolkit this month, designed as an online resource for stakeholders.  This toolkit will focus on implementation requirements, retention issues, policy concerns, interests of prosecutors, victim and privacy advocates’ concerns, and community engagement and funding considerations.

Body-worn cameras are not a cure-all, but they can be a valuable tool for planting the seeds of trust in our communities, and they will provide an additional measure of safety for law enforcement officers, who work so hard and under such tremendous pressure to protect our communities.  I am pleased to make these resources available to our partners in the law enforcement community and look forward to helping them strengthen the bonds of trust with the citizens they serve.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Each year, federal departments and agencies are required by law to submit a report to the Attorney General detailing various statistics regarding their agency’s FOIA activities, such as the numbers of requests processed and received, and the time taken to process them.  These Annual FOIA Reports, one-hundred in total for FY 2014, are compiled by OIP and posted on the Reports page of our site.  The data from the agency Annual FOIA Reports is also uploaded onto FOIA.gov, the Justice Department’s government-wide FOIA resource.

In order to provide agency personnel and the public with a comprehensive picture of the government’s FOIA activities during the fiscal year, OIP routinely creates a summary of the information contained within agency Annual FOIA Reports.  Today, we posted our summary of these reports for FY 2014 (PDF).  As in previous years, the summary looks at government-wide data for many key statistics in FOIA administration and highlights significant numbers reported by individual agencies.  Additionally, the summary identifies trends in FOIA processing by comparing the FY 2014 Annual FOIA Report data with data from prior fiscal years.

As described in this year’s summary, during FY 2014, agency FOIA Offices received a record high 714,231 requests while also facing several other challenges including reduced staffing, tough fiscal times, and a three week government shutdown during which requests continued to come in when there was no staff available to process them.  Managing these challenges, the government overall was able to process 647,142 requests while continuing to maintain a high release rate of over 91% for the sixth year in a row.  The government overall also improved its average processing times for simple and complex track requests. 

OIP’s Summary of Annual FOIA Reports for FY 2014 is available on our Reports page where it can be compared with previous summaries dating back to FY 2006.  The data collected in agency Annual FOIA Reports can also easily be viewed, compared, and analyzed on FOIA.gov.

Topic(s):
FOIA Post, Open Government
Thursday, April 30, 2015

Yesterday, the Office on Violence Against Women, along with many of our STOP State Administrators, joined survivors, advocates, law enforcement officers, government officials, and countless others in communities and campuses nationwide for Denim Day 2015.  Denim Day originated in the 1990s in response to the Italian Supreme Court’s reversal of a rape conviction in which the Chief Judge argued: “because the victim wore very, very tight jeans, she had to help him remove them, and by removing the jeans it was no longer rape but consensual sex.”  People wore jeans to work on the established “Denim Day” as a way of protesting the verdict.  Since then, Denim Day has become a national rape prevention campaign.

Photo of some OVW and STOP State Administators participating in Denim Day 2015

As we come to the end of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, it is important that we continue to join together to raise awareness, educate our communities, support survivors, and hold perpetrators accountable.  As President Obama stated in his National Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month Proclamation, “It's on all of us to work for the change we need to shift the attitudes and behaviors that allow sexual assault to go unnoticed, unreported, and unpunished.”  To that end, we are excited to announce a new Office on Violence Against Women (OVW) special project to promote justice for sexual assault victims and accountability for offenders.  

The Sexual Assault Justice Initiative (SAJI) is an opportunity to improve how the justice system in general, and prosecution in particular, handles sexual assault cases.  Through the SAJI, OVW will identify ways to enhance prosecution strategies by developing performance measures that look beyond conviction rates to track prosecutorial success, reflect best practices for prosecuting sexual assault that hold offenders accountable, and give victims the justice they deserve.

At OVW, we know that only a fraction of victims report their assaults to law enforcement, and, of the victims who do report, as many as half or even more will likely see their cases dropped during the investigation or prosecution phase.  We also know that sexual assault cases can be difficult to prosecute, which is why OVW created the SAJI.

We plan to release a competitive funding announcement in late spring inviting applications from prosecutors’ offices across the country that are interested in adopting the performance measures, implementing best practices for prosecuting sexual assault, and using victims’ perspectives to inform their work.   With funding from this initiative, AEquitas: The Prosecutor’s Resource on Violence Against Women will work with OVW and experts in the field to develop the performance measures and help the pilot sites implement them.  With AEquitas and the pilot sites as our partners, we look forward to crafting solutions to persistent challenges that leave too many victims without justice.

In addition to the prosecution-focused work, sites will be able to use the funds to strengthen other services in their communities that support sexual assault victims.  OVW anticipates selecting up to eight sites to receive two-year awards of up to $400,000 each.

In keeping with our commitment to evaluating the effectiveness of VAWA programming, we are partnering with the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) to assess the impact of these new indicators on case retention and attrition, charging decisions, case dispositions, and victims’ and other stakeholders’ perceptions of retributive, restorative, and procedural justice.  NIJ released a funding announcement for the evaluation of the Sexual Assault Justice Initiative on February 27, 2015.  Applications are due today.  We encourage anyone who is interested in learning more about the evaluation to read the NIJ solicitation. 

OVW is excited to share this news and looks forward to working with AEquitas and the selected sites to strengthen the justice system’s response to sexual violence.  Additional information about the SAJI, including the competitive solicitation, will be posted on our website as it becomes available.

We are pleased to announce the Sexual Assault Justice Initiative as part of our ongoing effort to ensure justice for survivors of sexual assault—a priority that has held the unwavering support of President Obama and Vice President Biden.  Together, we will continue to build a future free of sexual violence.

To learn more about the challenges of prosecuting sexual assault and the ways conviction rates fail to measure prosecutorial success, see Beyond Conviction Rates: Measuring Success in Sexual Assault Prosecutions, available from AEquitas: The Prosecutor’s Resource on Violence Against Women.

If you or someone you know needs help, you are not alone.  You can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline, operated but RAAIN, at 1-800-656-HOPE, or chat with an advocate online through the National Sexual Assault Online Hotline.  Check the NSVRC Resources page for news, publications, and links to other services organizations.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Courtesy of John C. Cruden, Assistant Attorney General for the Environment & Natural Resources Division

crated dogApril is widely recognized by many national and local organizations as a time to renew awareness of the issue of animal cruelty.  The images that we often see of animal cruelty cases can be profoundly disturbing – they strike a deep chord within us and raise concerns about related crimes, including interpersonal abuse.  But the issue of animal welfare is not purely a local one, confined to the treatment of household pets.  Animal welfare is also an important national issue that has a long history in American law, dating back to the early colonial era.  At the federal level, Congress has repeatedly made clear that ensuring the humane treatment of animals – whether by a zoo, commercial breeder, horse show, laboratory, or even a slaughterhouse – is a national policy.  And it is a policy that carries with it enforcement responsibilities.

As part of DOJ's law enforcement mission, we play a role in the enforcement of a number of federal animal welfare laws, along with key partners such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  One such area has been our effort to combat underground dog fighting schemes, where drug trafficking, gun running, and gang activities are commonplace.  It is astonishing to hear some estimates reveal that there are over 40,000 active professional dog fighters in the United States.  Over the years, the U.S. Attorney's Offices have charged hundreds of defendants involved in these illegal animal fighting ventures.  In 2014 alone, DOJ pursued ten dog fighting cases and charged 49 defendants, marking a significant upswing in federal enforcement.  Cases like United States v. Anderson – brought by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Middle District of Alabama – highlight the seriousness of this crime.  Anderson involved the second largest dog fighting raid in U.S. history, with over 400 dogs seized, 13 defendants indicted, sentences as high as eight years, and a restitution order of $2 million for the care of the seized animals.  

In recent years, DOJ has also worked to enhance federal coordination and support our state and local law enforcement partners on a variety of animal welfare issues.  DOJ's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) has helped over 1,500 law enforcement professionals to better detect, investigate, and take action against dog fighting through an online training program developed in partnership with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.  And in 2014, FBI Director James Comey announced a historic change in the identification and reporting of animal cruelty crimes.  For the first time, rather than being categorized as miscellaneous offenses, animal cruelty crimes will be distinctly reported as such in the National Incident-Based Reporting System (the FBI's crime statistics database).  This change will enable law enforcement, researchers, and policymakers to better understand and respond to these crimes.

Finally, as Assistant Attorney General for the Environment and Natural Resources Division, I am particularly pleased that late last year, DOJ designated this Division as the centralized body within DOJ that will help track, coordinate, and work with the U.S. Attorney's Offices on animal cruelty enforcement matters.  These are only first steps, and we have more work to do.  But we will not turn a blind eye to those who violate these important, long-standing federal laws that protect the vulnerable and voiceless. 

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Courtesy of Acting Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian YatesActing DAG Sally Yates, Director Michael Botticelli on ONDCP and co-chairs for the first meeting of AG's Heroin Task Force

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to join with Director Botticelli of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) to convene the first meeting of the Attorney General’s Heroin Task Force. The meeting was the first step in bringing together federal agency experts from law enforcement, medicine, public health and educational fields to help develop a coordinated response to our nation’s heroin crisis.

Make no mistake—there is a heroin crisis. The numbers are staggering. In 2013 alone:

  • More than 680,000 Americans used heroin;
     
  • More than 8,200 Americans died of a heroin overdose; and
     
  • More than 160,000 Americans tried heroin for the first time, including more than 20,000 children between the ages of 12 and 17.

It does not matter if you live in an urban area or a rural area, on the East Coast or the West Coast, in the heartland or in Indian Country, this problem is affecting families in every corner of our country.  The epidemic involves not simply heroin, but also a number of prescription opioids, which, when abused, can drive users towards addiction.  

When Congress directed the Department of Justice to create this Task Force, it called for a comprehensive solution, not an easy one. No single federal agency can solve this crisis alone.

Certainly law enforcement will play a crucial role, and we will continue to prosecute those who are distributing heroin on the streets of our country. But we can’t simply arrest our way out of this problem. It’s going to take many people from many disciplines working together on an holistic approach. That’s why we’ve asked U.S. Attorney David Hickton for the Western District of Pennsylvania and Deputy Director Mary Lou Leary for State, Local, and Tribal Affairs at ONDCP  to serve as Co-Chairs of the Task Force.  Together they have assembled a wide variety of stakeholders—not just agents and prosecutors, but also doctors, social workers, and addiction specialists—in hopes of developing lasting solutions rather quick fixes.

Starting this week, the Task Force will form committees and create a strategic plan that will be submitted to Congress and the President by end of 2015.  This strategic plan will provide a framework for national, regional, and local efforts to reduce both the supply and use of heroin. 

This is a daunting task. But with the collective efforts of the members of this Task Force, I’m confident that we will build on the Administration’s ongoing public health and safety approach to combatting the opioid epidemic, and have a real impact on this terrible problem.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Department of Justice Celebrates 45th Anniversary of Earth DayCourtesy of John C. Cruden, Assistant Attorney General for the Department of Justice’s Environment and Natural Resources Division

In celebration of Earth Day, this morning I joined Acting Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates and volunteers from the Environment and Natural Resources Division (ENRD) and Washington Parks & People at Marvin Gaye Park in Washington, D.C.  The Community Greening Center in Marvin Gaye Park is a neighborhood-based nursery for plants and trees as well as an environmental education resource center. This year was also a very special occasion for Washington Parks and People as they marked their 25th anniversary.

These volunteers, who have been coming here each Earth Day for the past 12 years, have accomplished great things on a local scale, improving the quality of the environment and the quality of life for a historic neighborhood by planting trees, clearing debris from the park and nearby stream, and making other improvements to the Greening Center so it can become a center of community life.

On a national scale, the Justice Department’s ENRD staff was also responsible for reaching two major settlements that will benefit the health and environment of residents in different corners of the country.  Today, the Department of Justice, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the state of Colorado announced a settlement with Houston-based Noble Energy, Inc. resolving alleged Clean Air Act violations stemming from the company’s natural gas production activities in the Denver-Julesburg Basin, north of Denver, Colorado.  And in a settlement with ExxonMobil Pipeline Company and Mobil Pipe Line Company, the companies have agreed to pay $4.19 million in civil penalties, to implement a supplemental environmental project, and to take corrective measures to resolve alleged violations of the Clean Water Act and state environmental laws stemming from a 2013 crude oil spill from the Pegasus Pipeline in Mayflower, Arkansas. 

Also as in previous years, the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division released its accomplishments report for the past fiscal year. It discusses the major enforcement and defensive cases, as well as other priorities of the Division over the last year. 

In the past year, the Division successfully litigated 926 cases and handled a total of 6,588 cases, matters, and appeals.  We recorded over $400 million in civil and criminal fines, penalties, and costs recovered.  The estimated value of federal injunctive relief – clean-up and pollution prevention actions funded by private parties – exceeded $6.2 billion.  ENRD also saved the taxpayers money, avoiding claims of over $2.0 billion.  The Division achieved a favorable outcome in 93 percent of cases, resulting in cleaner air, land, and water in the United States

Among our top priorities this year are: the continued litigation of all aspects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill; enforcing and defending EPA’s rules and regulations promulgated under the Clean Air Act to reduce greenhouse gases and conventional pollutants; combating wildlife trafficking; promoting responsible energy development; protecting tribal sovereignty, tribal lands and resources, and tribal treaty rights, vigorously  litigating while maintain our commitment to integrity and  the rule of law.  In all of our work, we continue to pursue the goals of environmental justice by ensuring that all communities enjoy the benefit of a fair and even-handed application of the Nations’ environmental laws and affected communities have a meaningful opportunity for their voices to be heard in all appropriate instances

In January, I returned to ENRD as the Assistant Attorney General following my Senate confirmation.  I have had the honor and privilege of spending over two decades at the Department of Justice, first as Chief of the Environmental Enforcement Section and then the Division’s career Deputy Assistant Attorney General, and during that time, I have witnessed the extraordinary efforts of career public servants who work countless hours, representing the United States in federal courts across our great nation.  The division’s backbone is those career professionals who have dedicated their lives to public service: upholding our laws, improving the environment, protecting our natural resources, and assuring the health and safety of our citizens.

For more information about Washington Parks & People and Marvin Gaye Park, visit http://www.washingtonparks.net/

Topic(s):
Environmental Crimes, Wildlife
Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Courtesy of Vanita Gupta, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division

ADA 25

Twenty-five years ago, our nation committed itself to eliminating discrimination against people with disabilities—through the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  The U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division is proud to play a critical role in enforcing the ADA, working towards a future in which all the doors are open to equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, integration and economic self-sufficiency for people with disabilities.  In honor of the 25th anniversary of the ADA, each month the Department of Justice will spotlight efforts that are opening gateways to full participation and opportunity for people with disabilities.  This month, we spotlight the story of Chris Rifendifer and accessible documents in Madison County, New York.

Chris Rifendifer is legally blind.  He relies on Medicaid and food stamps to help him take care of himself and his family.  But when he received forms from Madison County, New York, that needed to be completed and submitted to receive benefits, he could not read or complete the forms because they were not available in an accessible format.  Chris knew that he needed help with this paperwork, so he went to the Madison County Department of Social Services; the county agency responsible for administering these vital programs.

Unfortunately, Chris did not get the assistance he had hoped for.  When he asked for forms in large print, an accessible format for him, so that he could complete the forms, county staff said no.  They told him that because the forms were from the State nothing could be done.  Knowing that these benefits were essential to help feed his family, Chris swallowed his pride and asked county staff for help filling out the forms.  His embarrassment was amplified when they told him, “we don’t fill out forms; you’ll have to find someone else to do it for you.” 

Over the next three years, experiences like Rifendifer’s will become a thing of the past.  Madison County and the Justice Department have reached an agreement under Project Civic Access (PCA), the department’s wide-ranging initiative to ensure that cities, towns and counties throughout the country comply with the ADA.  One of the hallmarks of the agreement is the requirement that Madison County communicate effectively with people with disabilities, including providing documents in alternate accessible formats such as Braille, large print, recordings, and accessible electronic format.

Rifendifer has told the department that “Unfortunately, things like this had been going on for a long time.  I am glad to see that the county will be changing how it responds to requests for assistance in the future.”

Under the agreement, Madison County, New York, is also required to comply with the ADA’s architectural accessibility requirements in remediating existing buildings, when it builds new buildings and when it alters its buildings.  Additionally, it requires the county to publish and distribute ADA information, use the New York telephone relay service as a key means of communicating with individuals who are deaf, hard-of-hearing or have speech impairments, conduct ADA training and submit to monitoring of its compliance with the agreement by the department.

Over the past 15 years, nearly 220 communities have signed agreements with the Department of Justice to ensure that their citizens with disabilities enjoy the same services, programs and activities that all others enjoy.  For information on how jurisdictions can participate in Project Civic Access visit www.ada.gov

Rifendifer

Monday, April 20, 2015

Blog courtesy of Vanita Gupta Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights

As we recognize Sexual Assault Awareness Month, I want to take a moment to reflect on the work of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division to address and prevent sexual assault in schools and communities across the country.  The impact of sexual assault can reverberate throughout a community, and the response to sexual assault within a community – from a residential advisor in a college dorm to a special victim’s unit detective – has a profound and lasting impact on the health and well-being of a sexual assault survivor. 

Over the past few years, the division has engaged with law enforcement, prosecutors and schools to promote a comprehensive, integrated and effective response to reports of sexual assault.  In doing so, we look to assist both schools and law enforcement in their efforts to protect students and address the needs of sexual assault survivors.  As more people across the country are working together to prevent and improve the response to sexual assault, questions are frequently asked about the role of colleges and universities and why sexual assault is not handled exclusively by law enforcement.

Let’s be clear.  Sexual assault is a crime and must be dealt with appropriately.  However, the responsibility for addressing sexual assault does not stop at law enforcement.  Schools also have a civil rights obligation to respond appropriately to reports of sexual assault.    

Every school is responsible for providing a safe, nondiscriminatory environment to all students.  Sexual assault can interfere with or destroy a student’s ability to get an education.  We have heard from survivors of sexual assault who are fearful of being in the same classroom as their attackers or are subjected to harassment and retaliation by classmates for reporting the assault.  We have heard from too many students who left school after being assaulted.

Under federal civil rights laws, schools must respond to reports of sexual assault, investigate where appropriate and provide a prompt, effective and impartial resolution.  It is not enough just to respond to individual complaints from survivors.  To effectively address and prevent sexual assault, schools need to respond to reports from all sources, especially when assaults are repeatedly perpetrated by the same student or at the same location.  Having an appropriate and effective response system in place increases student confidence and trust in their school and the ability of the school to provide for their safety.

To provide a safe and nondiscriminatory learning environment, schools must be able to administer discipline where appropriate.  This administrative response serves a unique and critically important function and must happen in addition to any criminal prosecution.  A school disciplinary proceeding is not, however, a criminal proceeding, and should never be viewed as an alternative to criminal prosecution.  Schools do not have the authority and are not asked to determine whether alleged perpetrators of sexual assault committed a crime. 

That is the role of law enforcement.  And law enforcement – including campus police, local police and prosecutors – play a critical role: as one of the key responders to reports of sexual assault, and as partners with schools, victim advocates and others in the effort to protect the community from sexual assault.  Indeed, the importance of communication and coordination among each of these partners in both responding to and preventing sexual assault cannot be underestimated.  In our experience, when everyone works together, survivors of sexual assault are more likely to report and to receive services, exhibit greater confidence in the criminal justice and school systems and feel far better supported throughout the process.

In Missoula, Montana, to address serious shortcomings in how the University of Montana-Missoula and local law enforcement investigated and responded to sexual assaults, the division reached agreements with the university, its campus police, the city police department and the county prosecutor’s office.  This first of its kind multi-pronged approach to combating sexual assault – which reaches from the campus to the courthouse door – has resulted in significant improvements in the response to sexual assault within the Missoula community.  We, along with our colleagues at the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, are working with leaders from across the community as they implement these agreements so that whenever sexual assaults are reported, policies and procedures are already in place; first responders and investigators are trained to handle the report appropriately; and supports and services are more readily available and better coordinated.  It is with this kind of focused attention and collaboration that sexual assault can be eradicated from our communities and students can feel safe and supported in school.    

Sexual Assault Awareness Month

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Attorney General Eric Holder Welcomes New Federal Prosecutors Attorney General Holder and Acting Deputy Attorney General Yates today welcomed approximately 160 new Assistant U.S. Attorneys (AUSAs) from 89 of the 94 U.S. Attorneys’ offices across the country.  This class of AUSAs represents the nation’s best and brightest litigators who have chosen to serve the public interest. AUSAs ensure our laws are faithfully executed and represent the federal government in virtually all litigation involving the United States.                      

The Justice Department is proud of its talented and dynamic workforce and recognizes that its employees are its most important asset. The Department is stronger, more credible, and more effective when its workforce includes highly-qualified individuals whose backgrounds reflect our nation’s rich diversity.

The Office of Attorney Recruitment and Management leads the Department’s outreach and recruitment efforts, and opportunities are available for attorneys and law students in nearly every legal practice area.

The Department has four main hiring programs:

Information about these programs, including specific job opportunities, eligibility criteria, and application deadlines can be found on the Justice Legal Careers website at or the free mobile app DOJ Law Jobs. More information about the U.S. Attorneys’ offices can be found at http://www.justice.gov/usao.

U.S. Attorneys Present Panel Discussion

Topic(s):
U.S. Attorney's Office News
Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Courtesy of Vanita Gupta, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division

I will never forget earning my first paycheck.  The sense of pride and of paying your own way sticks with you. 

But today on Equal Pay Day, we are reminded us that far too many women are being paid much less than they are worth.  The statistic is well known but is worth repeating - women earn about 78 cents to a man’s dollar.  Because they earn less, a woman needs to work an extra four months until April 2015 to earn as much as a man did by in 2014.  Industry, geography, education and other factors limit the disparity but do not take it away.  And women of color face an even greater wage gap. 

Many times pregnancy causes women to lose their jobs or be paid less perhaps because employers value women less when they are caregivers or because our work places make it difficult to be a caregiver and a worker.  Given that the overwhelming majority of women will become mothers in their working years, this is a constant problem.

That is why the Supreme Court’s decision in Young v. UPS is good news on this Equal Pay Day.  The decision enhances our ability to fight for women and equal pay by putting teeth into the equal treatment provision of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA).  I am proud to say that the Department of Justice filed a brief in the case supporting Young’s claims.

The PDA requires that pregnant women be treated the same as other employees with similar ability or inability to work.  Young was a challenge to an unfortunately all too common employer policy: providing job modifications or light duty assignments to some workers but denying them to pregnant women. 

Young, a delivery driver for UPS, needed light duty or help with lifting packages because her pregnancy limited her ability to lift.  UPS refused to allow Young to keep working in light of the lifting restriction.  Young went on unpaid leave and eventually lost her health insurance.  UPS claimed that its policy was legal even though it routinely granted accommodations or found other work for three categories of employees who were eligible for accommodations under its policy.  UPS said that pregnant women were treated the same as workers who were unable to perform their jobs but who did not fall into the three categories covered by the policy. 

The court decided that in pregnancy cases, a woman can prove intentional discrimination by showing that an employer gave job modification to workers with similar restrictions, that the employer’s policy created a significant burden on pregnant women and that the reasons for that policy were not sufficiently strong to justify the burden.  The case will now return to the lower court to be judged under that standard. 

Interestingly, as the case wound its way to the Supreme Court, UPS voluntarily changed its policy to enable pregnant women to keep working, and some states passed new anti-discrimination laws that require such accommodations. 

Young, the new state laws, and policy changes at employers like UPS will allow a woman to stay on the job and keep receiving a pay check—something that will make an enormous difference in a woman’s ability to take care of herself and her family. 

In addition to high-profile cases like Young, the Civil Rights Division fights for equal pay in its day-to-day cases. This year, the division reached a settlement with Clark County, Nevada, after it found that the county paid its female Director of Diversity significantly less than white and male employees whose duties were similar. Additionally, the division filed a complaint against the Pennsylvania State Police for alleged use of a physical test that disproportionately screens out women and is not related to the job. Further, the division reached a settlement with the Queen Anne’s County Sheriff Department to revise personnel policies and procedures to prevent harassment and retaliation following the firing of a female deputy sheriff who was sexually assaulted by the Sheriff’s brother.

These cases – and the fact that a woman has to work four months longer than a man to earn the same amount– show that we still have a long way to go.  But these cases also show how far we can go.  The women in these cases are directors, police officers, firefighters, and sheriffs.   And this year, a truck driver won an important victory for women’s rights.  Remember that, and keep working with us to move Equal Pay Day back to December 31st where it belongs.   

Monday, April 13, 2015

Courtesy of Vanita Gupta, Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division

In the past year, the Department of Justice has continued to achieve significant results in its fair lending enforcement efforts, including negotiating groundbreaking relief for victims of credit discrimination.  The Civil Rights Division’s Housing and Civil Enforcement Section and its Fair Lending Unit enforce the federal fair lending laws, including the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA), Fair Housing Act (FHA) and Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA).  On April 13, 2015, we submitted our annual report to Congress reporting on our work in 2014 to address credit discrimination all its forms.  In the five years since the Fair Lending Unit was established, the division has filed or resolved 37 lending matters under ECOA, FHA and SCRA.  This year’s enforcement actions bring the total amount for the settlements in these matters to over $1.2 billion in monetary relief for impacted communities and individual borrowers.

Highlights of that work include:

Addressing discrimination in automobile lending: Working with the state of North Carolina, we filed the federal government’s first-ever discrimination lawsuit involving “buy here, pay here” auto lending.  In our complaint against Auto Fare Inc., we alleged that the owners and operators of two “buy here, pay here” used car dealerships violated ECOA by engaging in a pattern or practice of reverse redlining – intentionally targeting African American customers for unfair and predatory credit practices – in the financing of used car purchases.  The state of North Carolina also alleged the defendants violated the state’s Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices Act.  The 2015 consent order requires the defendants to establish a $225,000 settlement fund to compensate victims for their past discrimination and to make significant changes to the terms of their loans and their repossession practices.

Addressing discrimination in credit cards: Partnering with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, we filed and resolved the federal government’s largest credit card discrimination settlement in history.  In our complaint in United States v. Synchrony Bank, f/k/a GE Capital Retail Bank (D. Utah), we alleged that the bank engaged in a nationwide pattern or practice of discrimination in violation of ECOA on the basis of national origin by excluding Hispanic borrowers from two of its credit card debt-repayment programs if they had a mailing address in Puerto Rico or denoted Spanish as their preferred language for various communications.  As part of the settlement, the lender will pay at least $169 million to compensate more than 108,000 borrowers.

Addressing discrimination based on disability and receipt of public assistance: Based on a matter initially investigated by the Department of Housing and Urban Development and referred to the department, we filed a case against Fifth Third Mortgage Co. (M.D. Ga.) alleging that the lender and Cranbrook Mortgage Corporation engaged in a pattern or practice of discrimination by requiring credit applicants with disabilities to provide an official letter from their medical doctor to substantiate that their disability income would continue, but did not impose a documentation burden on applicants without disabilities to prove their income would continue.  As part of the settlement , the defendants must pay $1.52 million to compensate victims and implement other injunctive relief.

Enforcing the rights of members of the military: In 2014, the department filed its first ever lawsuit alleging discrimination against service members by servicers and owners of student loans in United States v. Sallie Mae, Inc., et al. (D. Del.).  The complaint alleges that the defendants violated Section 527 of the SCRA when they failed to reduce to six percent the interest rates on pre-service loans held by approximately 60,000 service members.  The consent order requires the defendants to pay $60 million to compensate aggrieved service members.  In addition, the defendants must streamline the process by which service members may obtain SCRA interest rate benefits.

We encourage you to read our ECOA report for a more detailed discussion of these and other achievements in the past year.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Department of Justice is pleased to announce the publication of its new, updated FOIA regulations which will become effective May 4, 2015.  FOIA regulations serve as a resource for both agency personnel and the public.  They provide procedural information for requesters, such as details about where and how to make a request.  They also set forth requirements for agencies, such as details about information that should be included in agency correspondence with requesters. 

The Department has updated its FOIA regulations and streamlined the language contained in them to make the regulations more user-friendly.  The updated regulations also reflect a range of practices embraced by the Department in support of the President's and Attorney General Holder's 2009 FOIA directives, particularly the Department’s policy encouraging discretionary releases. 

The new FOIA regulations were developed with public feedback and useful suggestions from requesters.  Many of the changes incorporate best practices from OIP's guidance that improve the FOIA process for both the Department and requesters.  For example, the new regulations include:

  • A focus on the role of the Department's FOIA Contacts and FOIA Public Liaisons to assist requesters both before and after a request is made
  • Proactive notification to requesters of which processing track their request falls in and an opportunity for requesters to narrow their requests to fit a faster track
  • Procedures on referrals, consultations and coordinations, which among other things require agencies to provide requesters the name and FOIA contact information of any agency where records are referred
  • An emphasis on good communication practices, which include the Department's commitment to communicate with requesters electronically whenever feasible, as well as other practices that ensure communications are made in the spirit of cooperation called for by the President and Attorney General Holder.

These are just a few examples of the new provisions in the Department's FOIA regulations.  The full text of the regulations can be found here.  Be sure to continue reading FOIA Post for the latest FOIA news from OIP.

Topic(s):
FOIA Post
Wednesday, April 8, 2015

In February, OIP held its last scheduled Best Practices Workshop in this new series of training.  The Best Practices Workshop series, designed as a part of the United States’ Second Open Government National Action Plan commitment to further modernize FOIA, aims to leverage effective strategies from across the government by highlighting and sharing successes achieved by agencies on a wide range of FOIA issues. OIP is currently in the process of developing its new schedule of workshops for 2015 and we invite both agencies and the public to give us suggestions for new topics. 

The February workshop featured an expert panel discussion on FOIA customer service and dispute resolution.  President Obama’s FOIA Memorandum and Attorney General Holder’s FOIA Guidelines direct agencies to work with requesters in a “spirit of cooperation,” and many agencies have implemented a range of good customer service practices as part of their FOIA administration.

The panelists for this Workshop included:  Carmen Mallon, Chief of Staff for the Office of Information Policy at the Department of Justice; Dennis Argall, Assistant Section Chief for the Record Information Dissemination Section at the Federal Bureau of Investigation; Paul Jacobsmeyer, Chief of the Freedom of Information Act Division of Washington Headquarters Services at the Department of Defense; and Carrie McGuire, Mediation Team Lead for the Office of Government Information Services at the National Archives and Records Administration.

Each panelist discussed best practices they have used and seen to promote good customer service.  Much of the discussion reemphasized the importance of several of the best practices highlighted in the October Workshop, which featured panelists from the requester community.  Some notable examples of the best practices discussed include:

  • Communicating with the requesters throughout the life of a request – Maintaining open communication with requesters is critical for providing good customer service. This can include promptly acknowledging receipt of a request, explaining the FOIA process to requesters who are unfamiliar with it, and ensuring that requesters can easily contact the agency to ask questions and inquire about the status of their requests.  Open communication also includes a range of actions, such as providing a sample of records responsive to a request to help the requester understand the type of material the agency has located and utilizing interim responses whenever possible to provide material on a rolling basis.
  • Proactively communicating with requesters – Several panelists found success in proactive efforts to communicate with requesters.  For example, reaching out to requesters who have (sometimes unknowingly) made broad or complex requests can help clarify questions the agency has while at the same time provide  requesters the opportunity to reformulate their requests so that records can be more readily located and processed more efficiently.  Proactive outreach to provide the status of a request can also be beneficial, particularly for requests that have been pending for any significant length of time.  By actively communicating with requesters in such situations, the agency not only is providing good customer service, but the communication itself can lead to further discussions about ways to help  requesters obtain  responsive records as efficiently as possible.
  • Memorializing discussions with the requester – Agencies should make it as easy as possible for requesters to clarify or reformulate their requests.  Documenting discussions with requesters, especially when the requester agrees to amend his or her request, is critical to ensure that the agency and the requester mutually understand what was discussed.  Agencies should promptly follow-up substantive phone discussions with an e-mail or letter that summarizes what was discussed and that includes contact information in case the requester has additional questions or concerns.
  • Using Multi-track processing to improve customer service – Multi-track processing can help agencies provide good customer service in two ways.  Utilization of a multi-track system provides a mechanism for the agency to process "simple" requests in a different queue from "complex" requests, which in turn can allow for improved timeliness for the "simple" track requests.  Additionally, by establishing multiple processing tracks, agencies can more readily offer requesters the option of tailoring their request so that it fits within the "simple" track and can be processed more quickly.

A list of all the best practices discussed during this series and related OIP guidance can be found on the Best Practices Workshop Series page of OIP's website. 

The Best Practices Workshop series will continue and OIP is currently developing the topics for the next slate of events in this series.  We invite you to suggest discussion topics for these upcoming events, and you can e-mail your suggestions for new workshop topics to DOJ.OIP.FOIA@usdoj.gov using the subject line "Agency Best Practices Workshop Suggestion." 

Topic(s):
FOIA Post, Open Government
Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Courtesy of U.S. Attorney Benjamin B. Wagner of the Eastern District of California

The enactment of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act in October 2009 marked a critical step forward in our battle against bias-motivated violence.  The act expanded the jurisdictional reach of federal investigators and prosecutors, provided resources to local authorities to assist them in the prosecution of hate crimes and, for the first time in federal law, established protections for persons targeted for violence on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.  The Department of Justice has made vigorous use of the law, convicting 49 defendants since early 2010 for a variety of violent acts motivated by bias.  In the Eastern District of California, for example, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Civil Rights Division recently concluded the prosecution of three white supremacists for an unprovoked attack on a white man and his African-American friend at a gas station in Yuba City, California.  Those three defendants are now serving significant federal prison terms.   

Combating hate crimes has been a priority of this administration.  Just last November, shortly after the fifth anniversary of the enactment of the Shepard Byrd Act, Attorney General Holder announced that the department would sponsor a series of pilot training programs around the country to commemorate the anniversary of the law, raise awareness with the public and with local jurisdictions about the importance of reporting hate crimes, build trust between law enforcement and impacted communities and educate our state and local law enforcement partners about federal hate crimes including the Shepard Byrd Act.  On April 2, the first of those pilot programs was held in Sacramento.

In the morning, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the Civil Rights Division and the FBI provided a half-day training program for over 60 local law enforcement officers and investigators.  I opened the program together with Special Agent in Charge Monica Miller of the FBI Sacramento Field Office.  Substantive instruction was provided by an Assistant U.S. Attorney, an FBI Supervisory Special Agent, and Chiraag Bains—Senior Counsel to the Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division.  The most riveting part of the program, however, was the participation of Judy and Dennis Shepard, parents of Matthew Shepard, whose brutal murder in a hate crime in Wyoming in 1998 shocked the nation, and whose name is enshrined in the statute.

Since the tragic death of their son, Judy and Dennis, through the Matthew Shepard Foundation, have been tireless advocates for equality and tolerance.  Later in the day, they were the centerpiece of a community forum at California State University Sacramento, which brought together over 100 members of the community—people of all colors and ethnicities, gay and straight, Jewish and Muslim, elected officials students, and members of the media.  The forum addressed the Shepard-Byrd Act, the investigation of hate crimes, reporting, police-community relations and other issues.  Judy and Dennis speak softly but eloquently, with courage and conviction.  They both made passionate appeals for community members to engage with and educate members of law enforcement as well as to report hate crimes.  The event concluded with a standing ovation for our visitors from Wyoming.

While recent years have been a period of tremendous change for issues relating to LGBT equality, much work still needs to be done.  Too many instances of hate-motivated violence still occur and too many of those instances still go unreported.  It is my hope that regional events like the one recently held in Sacramento—soon to be replicated in Biloxi, Mississippi; Kansas City, Kansas; Salem, Oregon; and Miami, Florida—will help address those gaps.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Courtesy of the Environment and Natural Resources Division

On March 26, 2015, the Department of Justice approved a Prospective Purchaser Agreement (PPA) with Reichhold, LLC for the purchase of a chemical manufacturing business on 8.8 acres in Azusa, California.  The property is part of the San Gabriel Valley Area 2 Superfund Site, Baldwin Park, California, Operable Unit and is located in an environmental justice community, where approximately 79 percent of the population is Latino, 35 percent of the population lives below two times the federal poverty level and 25 percent of the population over the age of 25 has less than a high school education level. 

The property was part of the bankrupt estate of Reichhold Inc.  The purchaser, Reichhold, LLC, is paying $800,000 to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Site special account to fund future response actions.  Additionally, the sale will retain 22 jobs, prevent blight in an industrial area and prevent the abandonment of a facility containing substantial amounts of hazardous substances, which could fall into disrepair.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Courtesy of the Civil Division’s Consumer Protection Branch

For decades, the Department of Justice, led by the Civil Division’s Consumer Protection Branch, has protected the health, safety and economic security of the American consumer.  Indeed, since its creation more than 40 years ago, the Consumer Protection Branch has worked tirelessly to combat all types of consumer fraud.

But as two of our most recent cases show, fraudsters have become more sophisticated.  It used to be that fraud schemes depended on the willingness of unwitting consumers to hand over their hard-earned savings in person or through the mail.  Today, the interconnectedness of our electronic banking system means a crook just needs to find a way to acquire one piece of information—your bank account number.  Once he has it, and a means to access the banking system, your bank account—and your money—is in his hands.     

Thanks to banking rules designed to prevent money laundering and other illegal activity, American banks generally don’t do business with people who are trying to steal money from consumers.  But fraudsters figured out that they could gain access to the banking system indirectly, through a middleman called a third party payment processor, because they realized some banks would not look past the middleman to evaluate what the fraudster was doing.  And other banks, even if they did find out what the fraudster was doing, would choose to look the other way while they continued to collect fees in exchange for enabling the scheme.

But just as bad actors continuously adapt to modern technology, law enforcement must adapt to protect consumers.  Recognizing this new and serious consumer fraud problem, in 2012, career prosecutors at the department proposed a focused effort to disrupt these illegal third-party payment processor schemes.  The new approach was informally dubbed “Operation Chokepoint”—a recognition that choking off access to consumers’ bank accounts could stop numerous fraud schemes at one time and protect more people from being victimized.

Following up on specific evidence of suspected fraud schemes operating through the banking system, and responding to particular consumer complaints and referrals from other law enforcement agencies, DOJ prosecutors trained their resources on a small number of banks -- around 50 of the roughly 6,000  operating across the country -- that were (wittingly or unwittingly) involved in these schemes.  They used many of the typical tools that are part of fraud investigations, including issuing subpoenas in 2013 seeking information from selected banks.  Once these prosecutors saw the evidence banks provided, they opened multiple civil and criminal investigations into the perpetrators of egregious (and in many instances, ongoing) fraud schemes.  In many cases, they informed banks that they were not themselves subjects of our investigations.  In others, however, they found evidence that the bank itself was aware of the fraud and was permitting the fraudsters to continue their unlawful conduct.

Last week, the Consumer Protection Branch resolved two additional cases involving illegal third party payment processor schemes in which, we allege, the bank ignored glaring warning signs of fraud while permitting fraudsters to illegally withdraw millions of dollars from consumers’ bank accounts.  For example, we allege that CommerceWest Bank was told by other banks such as Wells Fargo and Bank of America that their customers were being defrauded by a CommerceWest accountholder—but that CommerceWest’s response was merely to cut off further charges to customers of the complaining banks while continuing to allow the fraudster unimpeded access to the accounts of other victims.  Similarly, we alleged that Plaza Bank received so many consumer complaints that it had to develop a generic email response that acknowledged the “questionable” transactions that were continuing to be processed through the bank.  Combined, these two banks consciously turned a blind eye to schemes where staggering amounts were being stolen from millions of consumers.     

As these cases demonstrate, the department’s efforts under Operation Chokepoint have proved highly successful in protecting consumers and rooting out widespread fraud that was allowing millions of dollars to be siphoned from consumer bank accounts every month.  Including an earlier case against Four Oaks Bank, the department has been able to disrupt multiple fraud schemes that–until the government stepped in—were actively stealing tens of millions of dollars out of the bank accounts of more than a million different consumers.  The department, the FTC, and state and local law enforcement agencies have brought enforcement cases against other perpetrators of these fraudulent schemes as well.

While our actions have focused solely and squarely on disrupting fraud schemes that gain access to the banking system through third-party payment processors, we are aware of claims that the department unfairly targeted businesses engaged in lawful activity.  Others have confused our efforts with separate, independent actions taken by financial regulators to warn banks about risks involved with conducting business for merchants in certain industries. 

As the department has stated on multiple occasions, the proposal to focus on schemes involving third-party payment processors was developed by career prosecutors following credible leads about fraud schemes being perpetrated using the banking system.  Each subpoena was designed to gather information of illegal conduct, and each investigation focused on specific evidence of unlawful conduct.  And in no case has the department targeted any lawful enterprise, such as gun or ammunition sellers. 

We have briefed Congress, met extensively with industry groups, and taken many other steps to explain the purpose of Operation Chokepoint—and we remain committed to explaining what we are and are not doing.  But the most effective way of showing the success of Operation Chokepoint comes from the results of the cases we have resolved so far, as well as the results that will come from our continued pursuit of the banks, processors and others responsible for the schemes we identified from our focused effort.  Although this effort has largely achieved its goals, the problem that gave rise to it has not completely gone away.  That is why the department expects to bring additional criminal and civil cases related to these third-party payment processor schemes, and why we will continue our work to protect consumers and fight fraud in all its forms.

Posted in:
Friday, March 20, 2015

Over the course of Sunshine Week this week, agencies across the government began posting their 2015 Chief FOIA Officer Reports. Since the issuance of Attorney General Holder’s FOIA Guidelines in 2009, agency Chief FOIA Officers have reported to the Justice Department annually on their efforts towards improving the administration of the FOIA at their agencies. Over the last six years, these Chief FOIA Officer Reports have served as a valuable resource for agencies to detail their efforts in implementing the President’s and Attorney General’s FOIA Memoranda. On Monday, the Department of Justice released its 2015 Chief FOIA Officer Report and a compilation of success stories from other agency reports.

Each year, agency Chief FOIA Officer Reports illustrate the steps undertaken by agencies to improve their administration of the FOIA and to implement the five key areas of FOIA administration addressed in Attorney General Holder’s FOIA Guidelines. These five areas are:  applying the presumption of openness; ensuring that there are effective systems in place for responding to requests; increasing proactive disclosures; increasing the utilization of technology; and improving timeliness and reducing backlogs.

The Justice Department’s 2015 Report released this week details a range of initiatives for each of these areas, including:

  • Leading the efforts to further modernize FOIA through a number of commitments made in the United States' Second Open Government National Action Plan. These initiatives include working on a consolidated online FOIA service, developing common FOIA regulations and practices for federal agencies, improving internal agency FOIA processes across the government by leveraging best practices, improving FOIA training by making standard e-learning resources available for all federal employees, and participating in a FOIA Federal Advisory Committee.
  • The Department also continued to expand its robust FOIA training program in an effort to provide quality FOIA training and resources to all federal employees. OIP's FOIA instructors provided training on a range of topics to over a thousand federal employees across the government. OIP also released a new suite of four electronically available FOIA training tools designed for all levels of the federal workforce from the senior executive whose support is key, to agency program personnel, to the FOIA professionals who process records. This new collection of training tools helps ensure that all agencies have a ready set of targeted resources to make available to all their employees.
  • The Department proactively posted more information to its websites, and continued to post that information in ways that are most useful to the public. The Department's FOIA.gov website continues to be a central resource for all FOIA data and resources. With Fiscal Year 2014 Annual FOIA Report data now on the website, users can compare agencies' FOIA administration from this past fiscal year across agencies and over time. The other features on the site, such as videos about the FOIA and how it works, and FOIA contact information for all 100 agencies, continues to also serve as a valuable resource for the public.

As agencies post their 2015 Chief FOIA Officer Reports, we encourage you to review them to find out more about the various FOIA efforts undertaken by government agencies this past year.  OIP will once again provide a central link to these reports on our website as they become available.

As with last year’s Reports, OIP will begin its five-part series in the coming weeks here on FOIA Post to highlight agency achievements and initiatives in each of the five key areas addressed by the Attorney General’s FOIA Guidelines. Additionally, OIP will once again publish an assessment of agencies’ implementation of the President's and Attorney General's FOIA Memoranda based on agency Annual and Chief FOIA Officer Reports.  Be sure to continue reading FOIA Post for more information.

Topic(s):
FOIA Post, Open Government
Friday, March 20, 2015

In the last of our series on the need for limited updates to laws enhancing cybersecurity while protecting individual rights, this post will describe a proposal that is geared toward shutting down the international black market for Americans’ stolen financial information.  One of the most common motivations for hacking is the theft of financial information.  In recent years, organized, multinational criminal enterprises have arisen to steal large volumes of credit card numbers and other personally identifiable information.  Middlemen then sell the stolen data to the highest bidder, often using underground “carding” forums.  The amendments are aimed at making sure that these middlemen — those who profit from the sale of stolen financial data of Americans — can be brought to justice even if they are operating outside of the United States.

Here is the problem.  Current law makes it a crime to sell “access devices” such as credit card numbers.  The law allows the government to prosecute offenders located outside the United States if the credit card number involved in the offense was issued by an American company and meets a set of additional requirements.  In the increasingly international marketplace for stolen financial information, however, these requirements have proved increasingly  unworkable in practice.  The government has to prove either that an “article” used in committing the offense moved though the United States, or that the criminal is holding his illicit profits in an American bank.  But when you steal only digital data, it’s not clear what “article” could be involved.  And of course, foreign criminals generally move their money back to their home country.

The upshot is that these requirements unduly limit the Department of Justice’s ability to prosecute criminals residing outside of the United States who commit crimes that harm Americans.  Indeed, law enforcement agencies have identified foreign-based individuals holding for sale vast quantities of credit card numbers issued by American financial institutions where there is no evidence that the person selling the numbers is the one who stole them, and no evidence of “articles” in the United States.  The United States has a compelling interest in prosecuting such individuals because of the great harm they cause to U.S. financial institutions and citizens.

That’s why we’ve proposed an amendment that would strike the unnecessary language in the current statute.  It would permit the United States to prosecute anyone possessing or trafficking in credit card numbers with intent to defraud if the credit cards were issued by a United States financial institution, regardless of where the possession or trafficking takes place.  This kind of jurisdiction over conduct that occurs abroad is fully consistent with international norms and other criminal laws aimed at protecting Americans from economic harm.  Moreover, in an era of global cybercrime where criminals steal Americans’ financial information so that they can traffic it abroad, it is necessary to prevent criminals from victimizing our citizens with impunity.

Posted in:
Topic(s):
Cyber Crime
Thursday, March 19, 2015

Courtesy of Acting Associate Attorney General Stuart F. Delery

Acting Associate Attorney General Stuart F. Delery announced the creation of the Department of Justice’s Servicemembers and Veterans Initiative in a video. You can watch the video here.

Acknowledging the Debt We Owe Servicemembers and Veterans Through a New Initiative

Attorney General Holder has said that, although we can never hope to repay the debt of gratitude our nation owes the heroes who serve or have served in the Armed Forces, we must never forget to acknowledge what we owe.  The Department of Justice is firmly committed to doing its part in acknowledging what we owe.  That’s why I am proud to announce the Attorney General’s creation of the Servicemembers and Veterans Initiative. This initiative will be led by three dedicated career Justice Department attorneys with strong ties to the military community. They will further the Department’s existing efforts by coordinating and expanding our enforcement, outreach, and training efforts on behalf of servicemembers, veterans, and their families. The initiative will address the unique challenges that servicemembers face while on active duty, that veterans face upon returning home, and that families face when a loved one is deployed.

The sacrifices of our nation’s servicemembers go beyond the courageous act of putting themselves in harm’s way to defend our way of life. The sad fact is, they also face obstacles to exercising their civil rights and maintaining their families’ financial security.  That is why the Justice Department prioritizes enforcing the statutes specifically created to protect the civilian employment rights, voting rights, and financial security of those serving in the Armed Forces.

The Department is already having success on this front and we intend to have more. We have developed resources to help prosecutors respond to illegal foreclosures of servicemembers’ homes while they are on active duty and to scams that threaten servicemembers’ savings as they try to get their financial affairs in order in preparation for a deployment.   In the past few months, the Department has recovered over $123 million for servicemembers who were the victims of illegal non-judicial foreclosures; secured almost $10 million of relief in a lawsuit against a company that illegally repossessed over 1,100 cars; and obtained relief for 138 National Guard dual-status technicians who were illegally required to leave their civilian positions prior to entering active duty service. In addition, the Department awards grants to support mentoring programs and services for youth with a parent in the military.

The unique challenges often do not stop when a person leaves the Armed Forces.  For example, some of our Nation’s more than 22 million veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, or other mental health problems connected to their experiences while serving.  That is why the Department supports Veterans’ Treatment Courts, which promote sobriety, recovery, and stability for veterans struggling with addiction or mental illness who have become involved in the criminal justice system.

The Servicemembers and Veterans Initiative will reinforce the importance of this critical work and also make it easier for the Department to use all available resources and legal authorities to protect the rights and interests of the brave men and women who serve or have served in our Armed Forces.  The Initiative’s initial focus will be on three areas:  enforcement, education, and access to justice.

  • Enforcement: We will extend the expertise and resources needed to enforce the civil and criminal statutes protecting the rights of servicemembers, veterans, and their families to lawyers and investigators throughout the Department, allowing us to expand and coordinate our enforcement efforts.We will also promote information sharing among federal, state, and local enforcement agencies, so that they too can use all of the tools at their disposal.

  • Education: We will make sure that servicemembers, veterans, and their families have access to information about their rights and who to contact to report abuse.We will achieve this by working with people who serve as the first points of contact for members of the military community at the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs, and the Judge Advocate General offices at military installations throughout the world; by maintaining an accessible website with vital information to direct servicemembers and veterans to the resources they need; and by reaching out to underserved populations with high representation in the military, such as American Indians and Alaska Natives.

  • Access to Justice: We will use grants and other resources to support the efforts of courts, law enforcement, and other organizations to respond appropriately to the specialized circumstances of servicemembers and veterans in the criminal and civil justice systems.And we will build on existing partnerships with public and private programs that benefit and protect servicemembers, veterans, and their families, including organizations that provide not-for-profit legal services.

If we do our jobs well, we will allow servicemembers to focus on their work protecting the country and help veterans take their rightful place in the country they have sacrificed so much to protect and defend. 

It is my hope that this Initiative will be a mainstay of the Department's work for many years to come.  And I encourage anyone interested in the Servicemembers and Veterans Initiative to get in touch with its new leaders:  Director Silas Darden (Major in the Air Force Reserve) and Assistant Directors Andrew Braniff (Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act Program Coordinator for the Department’s Civil Rights Division) and Spencer Fisher (Chief Warrant Officer 2 in the Marine Corps Reserve),  servicemembers@usdoj.gov

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